Over the coming weeks I’m going to take you on a tour of some of my favorite spots in one of my favorite states…Utah! If you’ve ever been to Utah, chances are it was to one of their stunning national parks, like Bryce Canyon, Arches, or Zion. Or maybe you were visiting Salt Lake City or the incredible ski resorts around Park City. But there is MUCH MORE to Utah than that. If I had to pick my favorite state in the US (other than Hawaii), it would most definitely be Utah, because of the stunning variety of wilderness…from high alpine forests to desert slot canyons so deep the sun never reaches the bottom. There are waterfalls, caves, and hot springs galore. And charming little towns surrounded by family farms and artisan shops that have been passed down through generations.
But I’m starting off with a whammy…an adventure to a remote Anasazi cliff dwelling that is so secret only a handful of people know of its existence. And the trek to it could not be more harrowing or spectacular. I did this trek with my dear friend Ryan (though we call each other Raspberry due to an inside joke sparked by a line from Carol Channing in the impossibly-campy film Thoroughly Modern Millie) in September of 2012 on the way home from the Burning Man festival.
You start off by driving 8 miles down an unnamed 4-wheel-drive road so deeply rutted you could probably walk it faster. You basically park where the road disappears, and at that point, you’re deceivingly close to the ruin…probably only a mile and a half. But, man, is that a long mile and a half!
Along the first half of the trail are some striking examples of cryptobiotic soil. Here in the desert, there is very little soil, and endless blasting winds, which would normally carry the soil away. So Mother Nature has devised a genius workaround. This soil is alive! It is a symbiosis of many living organisms that bind the soil together and promote water retention. And you have to stay off it! It can take upwards of a century for the organisms to bind together, and a single footprint can destroy it. Any time you’re hiking in desert regions, keep your eye out for this fascinating feature, but do your best to avoid disturbing it!
Most of the hike involves rock climbing over smooth red sandstone along the top of a ridge until the ridge narrows, and you’re presented with your first view of your goal:
If that doesn’t look like a ruin, that’s because it’s not. The cliff dwelling is perched precariously on the side of that rock tower, and you have to cross that narrow fin of rock to get to it. The only problem is that the cliffs on either side of the rock fin are almost a thousand feet high.
Well…I shouldn’t say “only problem.” Even getting down to that rock bridge involves rock climbing and scrambling across thin, slippery ledges that slope at a 45 degree angle down toward the canyon bottom. Ryan had a little panic attack at one point because gravity really convinces you that you’re about to plummet to your death in several spots.
This may not look that scary, but I was perched at the same slope as Ryan when I shot the photo. What appears to be a flat ledge is actually sloped down toward the canyon bottom with a cliff right below it. The ledge is covered with small rocks and dust, making it VERY slippery. I have to admit, I was a bit terrified in this spot, as well. Once you clear this hurdle, you end up walking across 45-degree sloped sandstone straight down toward a precipice, and eventually you end up at the land bridge which leads across to the rock tower where the ruin is located.
The location of this ruin is so fantastical…hidden on a rock pinnacle with the only access being across this narrow land bridge. It could easily be defended by only a handful of people. There are certainly drawbacks…with no permanent water source, they had to rely on deep potholes scattered about the land bridge that would fill with water after a rain. And in times of drought, it was a perilous climb down into the canyon to the nearest spring. Once you get across the bridge, you do a bit of rock climbing up onto the mountain, and you finally reach the ruin:
This ruin is not large at all, compared to massive complexes like you see at Mesa Verde. This ruin probably only supported one family. It has never been restored, yet it’s in immaculate condition because of its practically-inaccessible location. You have to do a bit of rock climbing to get up to it, and once you’re on the level of the ruin you can walk all around the rock tower and visit other ruins all the way around. There’s just no way to describe how haunting this place is. I felt like I was the first person to set foot there in centuries. The wind was howling through the rocks, and nowhere is there flat ground where you feel stable…always sloped downward into the abyss that surrounds the ruin. (Not very comforting when the wind is blasting at 30 miles per hour!)
Pictures simply can’t convey how incredible this place is, so I’ve put together a little video that will show you around. Please note that the video IS available in high definition, but YouTube has recently limited the ability to embed HD video, so if you’ll click the YouTube logo just below the video frame, it will take you directly to YouTube in a new window, where you can change the definition to 1080p and see it in much better quality!
Word about this magnificent place has begun to leak out amongst the die-hard hiker community in the southwest, so it is seeing more and more visitation. That will come at a price, of course. So you’ll have to forgive me…I’m not sharing any details about its location. If you’re bound and determined to locate it, a bit of research will prove fruitful. If you decide to make the trip, I do hope that, first of all, you are exceptionally careful. This is an incredibly dangerous place. And second…be cautious around the ruin. Don’t remove any artifacts or touch petroglyphs. This wondrous spot remained a secret hiding place for a family of the Ancient Ones for many centuries. It is sacred, and deserves supreme respect!
Feel free to comment below, and if you’ll subscribe to my blog on the right side of this page near the top of this post, you’ll get the whole Utah series that will be coming out regularly over the next few weeks, where I’ll introduce you to lots of really cool, out-of-the-way places that will probably put Utah near the top of your own travel list!
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